The WA Labor Government is lobbying the Federal Government to set up an amnesty program so illegal workers can be hired in WA’s agricultural industry. [1] The Commonwealth estimates about 86,000 illegal workers are operating in Australia, although it is unclear how many are based in WA.

This does not account for the large numbers of people in Australia on visitor visas at June 30, 2020 over 93,000 tourists (some may be working despite having no work rights attached to their visa).[2] The Migration Act 1958, states that it is a criminal offence to contravene the conditions of a visa and the penalties are extremely serious.[3]

The McGowan Government have made a significant error of judgement

Proposing amnesty for illegal immigrants and illegal workers is a serious mistake. Rewarding illegal conduct is never a good idea.

There are over 2 million temporary visa workers in Australia (see Chart 1 below). Nearly half of these temporary workers are from underdeveloped economies in the Asia Pacific Region.[4]  In comparison Australia is a much higher wage economy, therefore the motivation for a large number of temporary migrants to overstay is significant.

(Source: Australian Government, 2020.[5])

Federal Government response

The Federal Government appeared to be taking a more cautious approach to an illegal worker amnesty than the McGowan Government. Questioning why the Labor Government will prioritise jobs for illegal workers over signing up to a National Ag Workers Code, which would give WA growers more certainty.[6]

However, within 24 hours they have made an abrupt change to their stance. [7] They have decided to consider developing an illegal worker/immigration program. The pressure on the Federal Government is coming from the WA Labor Government, the Victorian Labor Government and Farming industries.[8]


This is an extremely questionable policy proposal. Rewarding illegal immigration and illegal workers could have huge ramifications. What about the 2 million foreign nationals on temporary visas in Australia at the moment? Will an illegal worker amnesty encourage thousands of temporary migrants to overstay their visa conditions?

What about immigrants who apply for a visa through legal channels? What is the point of making the effort if the Federal Government provide amnesty to foreign nationals who have deliberately violated the visa rules under the Migration Act 1958.

Population Research WA will provide regular updates on this extremely serious issue.


An illegal worker is a foreign national who has a legal visitor visa but is employed without obtaining a legal Australian work permit.

An illegal immigrant is a foreign national that has overstayed their visa conditions and may also be employed illegally.


[1] Jessica Hayes, Belinda Varischetti and Zoe Keenan, ‘Calls for National Illegal Worker Amnesty as Labour Shortage Crisis Hits Boiling Point’, 2020 <> [accessed 2 October 2020].

[2] Marie Segrave, ‘What It’s like to Live and Work Illegally in Australia’, 2017 <> [accessed 2 October 2020].

[3] Australian Government, ‘Migration Act 1958’ (Attorney-General’s Department, 2020), au <,> [accessed 2 October 2020].

[4] Australian Government, ‘BP0019 Number of Temporary Visa Holders in Australia Pivot Table | Resources | Data.Gov.Au – Beta’, 2020 <> [accessed 1 July 2020].

[5] Australian Government, ‘BP0019 Number of Temporary Visa Holders in Australia Pivot Table | Resources | Data.Gov.Au – Beta’.

[6] Jessica Hayes, Belinda Varischetti and Zoe Keenan.

[7] Kath Sullivan and Angus Verley, ‘Federal Government Considers Amnesty for Illegal Workers’, 2020 <> [accessed 4 October 2020].

[8] Kath Sullivan and Angus Verley.

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